Looking away, but with his arm now rubbing against hers, he nodded at Max. "Talin's apartment. Anything?"
"Blood was - I'm sorry, Talin. It was Mickey's."
Even as Talin's stomach threatened to revolt, Clay's hand closed over her thigh. He squeezed hard enough to disrupt her nausea, drawing her attention to the heated power of his presence instead. Adoring him a little more, she put her hand on his. His skin burned hotter than hers, warming the cold in her bones.
"Go on," he said to Max. "Tally can handle it."
Max looked at her, gaze bruised by the cruelty he'd witnessed. "He right? This is going to be bad."
Her hand clenched on Clay's. Not making a sound, he broke the contact, raised his arm, and placed it around her shoulders. Such a simple act, but one she'd never allowed any other man. It had felt too much like a cage...and none of those others had been capable of breaking her neck with a single violent move. But at this moment, the memory of the safety she'd always found in Clay's arms trumped that of tearing flesh and a monster's shrill screams. She drew his scent deep into her blood, into her very cells. "I'm ready."
Max didn't ask again. "There wasn't much else at your apartment. What evidence we have comes from the kids themselves." He paused, rubbed a hand over his face before continuing. "The apparent pattern until Diana and Iain was a murder every three weeks."
"You don't think it's the actual pattern?" Clay asked.
"I'm not sure we have all the victims," Max said. "Finding Mickey, Iain, and Diana so close together - within two weeks of each other - tends to support that theory."
"Any geographical pattern?" Clay asked with a predator's sharp intelligence, his deep voice a rumble that vibrated in her bones, at once comforting and a warning that he was something other, something as lethal as he was beautiful.
"No," Max answered. "I'm only in San Francisco because it's the last known body dump. Diana was taken from New York but found here with Iain. She was the last of your New York charges, right, Talin?"
"After they got Mickey, yeah." Oh, God, it hurt to think of her kids broken and bloodied. "Officially, Di didn't need a Guardian anymore, not once she'd been accepted into the boarding school." But she had still called to chat every so often, had still been Talin's. "She loved being on the track team." Talin curled a hand against the hard strength of Clay's abdomen, mind filled with the sound of Diana's laughter. Clay didn't say anything but shifted his hold so that his thumb stroked over the sensitive skin of her neck.
"Four Shine kids if you count Jon," he murmured. "I'm not buying the 'fishing in the same pool' argument, Tally."
Her loyalty to Shine made her want to protest, but she tried for logic. "But there were seven others, all unconnected," she reminded him.
"That's what I have to tell you," Max said.
Horror uncurled slow and insidious in the pit of her stomach. If Shine was evil, then what did that make her? Had she been leading the children she loved to their deaths?
Max reached for the bowl of peanuts on one side of the table. "You mind?" At the shake of their heads, he started picking out nuts and placing them on the tabletop. "We have fifteen confirmed fatalities."
"Fifteen?" Her hand spasmed, gripped Clay's T-shirt. "So many?"
"I'm guessing there are more." Having counted out fifteen peanuts, he pushed the bowl aside and put the saltshaker in the middle of the table. "I only found these fifteen because I went digging. Most times kids like this disappear, no one reports them missing. By the time they're found, it's often too late to see soft-tissue damage."
"Soft-tissue, that's your link?" Clay asked what Talin couldn't force herself to.
"Yeah," Max answered, "but one step at a time. This" - he picked up a nut - "is the first confirmed victim. Harish, age eight. Died a year ago - so this has been going on longer than we initially thought. The forensic team found the card of a Shine Foundation Guardian hidden in his shoe. The Guardian confirmed he'd approached the boy two days before the abduction." Max put the peanut about five centimeters from the saltshaker.
Talin's sense of horror multiplied a thousand times over.
"Second confirmed victim: Miu Li, age thirteen, died eleven months ago. She was a walk-in at Shine's Oklahoma facility. Did some tests, was entered into the tracking system, and disappeared." That peanut, he put closer to the saltshaker. "Victim number three: Hana Takuya, age fourteen, in her first year of an accelerated course funded by the Japan-Korea War Widows Trust. Its major donor is Shine.
"Victims four and five, Depe Lacroix, age ten, and Zoe Charles, age fourteen, threw me because they seemed to have no connection to Shine. Until," he said, mouth a grim line, "I traced their families and found they both had younger siblings who had been tapped by the foundation. Seems logical that Shine must've approached the older kids, too, and been rebuffed."
It continued like that until Max had connected all fifteen victims to Shine.
"My God." Her mind refused to believe. "But Shine is good...they help kids. They helped me." She rarely trusted, but she had given them a sliver of it.
"They might still be good," Clay said, to her surprise. "You have to have considered the idea of a mole in the foundation."
Max nodded. "Either that or Shine is a slick front for some very bad things. But I doubt that. If you're out to hunt kids, there are cheaper ways of doing it than by setting up a multimillion-dollar foundation. Whatever the truth, it's our best lead."